Reporting Robin Williams’s death: The good, the bad and the ugly
The media reaction to the death of Robin Williams is another reminder that when bad things happen to the famous it can have, if only in the short-term, a beneficial public effect.
Depression has been the subject of several segments on TV and radio programmes, including talk-in shows, and was also a topic explored in many articles in today’s national newspapers.
It has become common for widespread interest in medical problems to be stimulated by the media coverage of stricken celebrities, such as Angelina Jolie, who underwent a preventative double mastectomy, Kylie Minogue, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Jade Goody, who died from cervical cancer.
In those three cases, many thousands of women were motivated by the news into attending clinics to be screened for breast and cervical cancer.
The Williams case is slightly different. It has encouraged sufferers to talk and write about clinical depression and, at a practical level, there has been much guidance and advice.
Alongside big media coverage, many people related their experiences on social media, usually in a positive way, most obviously by indicating how to access help.
The Daily Telegraph, for example, offered a series of links to services for depressed and suicidal people. The Independent gave a platform to the Samaritans’ chief executive, Catherine Johnson.
Among the tributes to Williams, Andrew Billen’s in the Times stood out because, without descending into pseudo-psychology, he made a sensible stab at showing how “the comic’s manic style was both a symptom of his chemical imbalance and the means by which he controlled it.”
Hadley Freeman, in the Guardian, noted a facet of Williams’s recent performances that struck me when watching him on the Graham Norton Show – that he was no longer trying to hide his underlying mental problems. She wrote:
“On the Daily Show last year, he was his usual free-wheeling, wide-ranging self, slipping in and out of voices while also talking candidly about rehab. His voice sounded a little heavier, and there was a weary ‘All right, all right, let’s give them what they want’ look in his eyes…”
I concede that the pieces by both Billen and Freeman were impressionistic. But neither pretended otherwise. In offering rational insights, they were not in the least bit sentimental.
It is harder to be rational in a TV interview. Eddie Izzard, in an interview on BBC2’s Newsnight, was clearly, and understandably, too emotional to do more than lament the passing of a man he admired and had worked with.
Did newspapers ignore the reporting guidelines?
But then we come, of course, to the contentious matter of the reporting of Williams’s suicide. The Sun’s front page report, “Robin: his last hours”, contained far too many details about the nature of his death, as did the splashes in Metro and the Daily Mirror.
The Daily Mail’s splash, “He was facing bankruptcy”, offered that fact (or, I should say, alleged fact) as a possible reason for him taking his own life. The Mirror suggested the same motive in its front page story.
The story, however, did not contain quite as many gruesome details as the articles in the Sun and Metro. It is no wonder that the Samaritans were moved to remind newspapers of the guidelines for the reporting of suicides.
As the Guardian’s Sarah Boseley pointed out, those guidelines were drawn up in conjunction with journalists.
The Samaritans and the mental health charity Mind believes that reporting the details of a suicide can cause copycat behaviour.
I think the red-tops overstepped the mark, although I understand just how difficult it is to know exactly where to draw the line. To report that a person hanged himself is a fact. To report where it took place is a fact. To report other details – which, for obvious reasons, I cannot mention here – was wrong.
Then again, as soon as I say that, these details were released by the authorities in the United States. They were widely reported there. And all media is now global.
Making such decisions about what should, and should not, be reported has never been so difficult.
•To contact Samaritans, call 08457 90 90 90